Bold targets needed to curb child poverty

If we want to achieve worthwhile or important goals, we often set specific targets. Companies establish revenue targets; athletes set themselves performance targets; central banks have targets to keep the inflation rate low; and many students set themselves ambitious targets for academic achievement.

Having targets can yield many benefits. They clarify goals, encourage commitment and effort, enhance a sense of responsibility and improve accountability.

In June this year, the National- led Government announced a series of 10 ambitious targets as part of its Better Public Service reform agenda. The targets cover many important policy areas including reducing welfare dependency, improving health outcomes, boosting skills and employment, and reducing crime. The targets are all quantitative in nature and must be achieved by specific dates.

Setting such targets makes a lot of sense. As Prime Minister John Key commented in July: "If you don't measure, monitor and report on things, I don't think you get progress."

Recently the Expert Advisory Group on Solutions to Child Poverty issued a report on how to tackle child poverty in New Zealand. Among the many recommendations are proposals to establish authoritative measures of child poverty then set targets to cut the poverty rate against each of these specific measures.

Our proposed targets are ambitious, but realistic. We believe New Zealand should reduce overall rates of child poverty by at least 30-40 per cent within a decade and more than halve the levels of severe and persistent child poverty. If we achieved such reductions, New Zealand would once again have relatively low rates of child poverty, both by international standards and in relation to our own history.

The wider economic and social benefits, including longer-term fiscal savings, would be considerable. It would also be good news for the children who experience deprivation, often for years on end.

In many ways, the targets we have proposed build on and underpin the Government's recent policy initiatives. Indeed, at least half of the Government's targets are directly concerned with mitigating the effects of child poverty. This applies particularly to the targets for improving child- health outcomes, lifting participation rates in early childhood education, improving educational achievement and reducing youth crime.

For instance, one of the Government's targets is to cut the incidence of rheumatic fever by two-thirds to 1.4 cases per 100,000 people by June 2017. This goal is highly desirable. Rheumatic fever can be highly disabling with lifelong consequences, such as rheumatic heart disease, which is expensive to treat and can result in premature death.

By the standards of developed countries, the incidence of rheumatic fever in New Zealand is high, especially among Maori and Pasifika children. It is partly the product of low incomes and overcrowded houses. To address this problem properly, we must tackle child poverty. Better healthcare, while critically important, will not be enough.

Another of the Government's targets is to increase the proportion of 18-year-olds with NCEA level 2 from 68 per cent to 85 per cent by 2017. This is also a commendable goal.

Higher rates of achievement will boost job opportunities, enhance productivity and raise incomes. But to achieve this it will be crucial to lift educational achievement among low-income children. This cannot be done by schools alone. It will require action to address child poverty.

Children cannot be expected to achieve at a high level or fulfil their dreams if they are under- nourished, live in cold, damp houses, lack access to a home computer, or are unable to study because of overcrowding. Nor can they aspire to achieve great things if their parents can't afford school trips or sporting and cultural activities. If we want our under- achieving children to do better, we need to focus on the reasons for poor performance. There is no point pulling desperately on the wrong policy levers.

Similarly, we cannot wait until the teenage years to address these problems. Far too many children have a poor start, which is tragic for them but costly for society.

The Government is to be commended for the ambitious targets it has set. Without doubt, securing better health and educational outcomes for our children is a worthy goal. But, to be successful, we will need to address the problems of low income and material deprivation.

Hence, we need bold but achievable targets to reduce child poverty. Other countries have such targets. For instance, Britain has a Child Poverty Act with a range of ambitious poverty reduction targets.

Child poverty can be reduced. And it ought to be. Doing so would constitute a great investment in all our futures. All it requires is the necessary political will.

Professor Jonathan Boston co-chairs the Expert Advisory Group on Solutions to Child Poverty.

The Dominion Post